This week in June, 26 years ago, I was at the Crowley’s Ridge Youth Camp, where for the past three years I was known as “Sledge.” This nickname was given to me apparently because some people thought I looked like a kid version of detective Mike Hammer, who went by the name “Sledge Hammer.” Just a few days before this, we had received news concerning my Grandmother who had been visiting family in Los Angeles, CA. At that time, she was 71 years old and had suffered a brain aneurism. She was in the hospital in serious condition. My mom told us that she would be flying out to be with my grandmother and didn’t really know what would happen. I remember worrying. I remember being afraid.
My mind was already focused on Los Angeles. You see, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers were facing off in the 1991 NBA Finals. I had been a huge Chicago Bulls fan for as long as I can remember. Part of me was so nervous and scared by what had happened to my grandmother. But honestly, another part of me thought it was cool that my mom would be in LA at the same time as Scotty Pippen…and Michael Jordan. I remember praying that my grandmother would be okay; and I think secretly I was hoping my mom would bring me back something from Los Angeles. Well, my grandmother recovered…and my mom brought me back a gift. It was a hat which she gave me when she picked me up from Camp that Friday night. It was a World Champions Chicago Bulls hat. The Bulls had won the NBA Finals by defeating the Lakers 4 games to 1. I was thrilled when I saw the hat. But I remember being even more happy that my grandmother was going to be ok, that she was going to make a full recovery. And I remember giving thanks to God, because I knew that he had answered our prayers and allowed my grandmother to recover.
On Sunday, January 2, 2011, I woke up early to my phone ringing. My grandmother, now 91 years old, whom I had just spent some time with over the holidays, had suffered another brain aneurism. She was in the hospital and was not responsive. She was breathing on her own, but she was in a coma. My prayers, after 20 years of living, were very much different in nature, but the plea was nonetheless the same: “God, please intervene…please help her recover.” My grandmother passed away that next Thursday, January 6, 2011. And I found myself questioning, “God, why didn’t you answer our prayers?”
In Matthew 22, we find the Pharisees and Sadducees questioning Jesus. They were trying to trap Him in His words. And after two failed attempts, they decide to send an expert in the law to test Jesus with this question, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Love God and love others. That’s what Jesus says. But that first commandment, to love God, is often so difficult for us. We often get angry with, and disappointed in, God. At times, we find ourselves asking, “Where were you God, when…My parents divorced…My marriage fell apart…Injury or illness destroyed my dreams…Rejection or loss crushed my hopes…A natural disaster killed innocent people…Someone I loved passed away.
One important factor that we need to consider is that loving God doesn’t happen automatically. It is impossible to love God in our own strength. We can’t earn God’s favor by trying harder to love Him more. We are just too weak and flawed to make the cut. But God mercifully empowers us to both receive his love and to love Him back. Loving God takes practice. Love takes time. Love is an emotion that is developed through our meditations, our senses, and our encounters. Love is an action. Love is intentional. We must dedicate our time to God. We must be committed to developing our love for God.
As we read through scripture it is easy to see the response to God’s character and His initiative of love. But it is rare that “I love You, God” appears. But two such places are: “I love you, O Lord, my strength” (Psalm 18:1), and “I love the Lord” (Psalm 116:1). We see in scripture that love for God is mostly expressed by: 1) Praising him for who he is, 2) Thanking Him for what He has done, 3) Trusting him by placing oneself under his care and influence, 4) Serving him by offering one’s life to fulfill His purposes, 5) And obeying Him by living out His truths, commands, and guidelines.
If you were asked, how would you describe your love for God? Do you find it difficult sometimes to love him? We ask the question, “Do I love God?” Maybe we need to be asking, “Do I even like him?” We know that difficulties and trials are inevitable in this life. And we understand that as we live, we will experience disappointment and heartache. And if we are not careful, those experiences can cause us to begin questioning God and his love for us. Our perspective plays a major role in how we respond to God’s character and His initiative of love. So often we experience the difficulties of this life and they leave us questioning. Maybe God didn’t answer your prayers the way you had hoped. Maybe your goals for your life were derailed by some tragic event, or some decision you made. Maybe the challenges that you are facing right now, have you questioning, “Where are you God?” Henri Nouwen, in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, said:
“God has never pulled back his arms, never withheld his blessing, never stopped considering his son the beloved one. But the Father couldn’t compel his son to stay home. He couldn’t force his love on the beloved. He had to let him go in freedom, even though he knew the pain it would cause both his son and himself. It was love itself that prevented him from keeping his son home at all cost. It was love itself that allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it. Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving it. But the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear, “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.”
Know that God is always there. Know that you are not in this alone. God does love and care for us, even when we don’t understand. When we give an honest look at all God has done for us, we will not be able to contain the emotion, even in the midst of tragedy and disappointment. When we find ourselves asking, “Where are you God?” he says, “I am right beside you…crying with you…my arms outstretched…just waiting for you to accept my embrace.” You see, God empowers His powerless children to both receive His love, and to love Him back. Loving God, there is nothing greater.